My relationship with most sports was really quite simple: I either did rather well, or I completely, hopelessly stunk – there seemed to be no middle ground, except in the realm of football, where I could, on occasion (in particular when I didn’t think about it) play as well as anyone else, but on most days I was a bit of a duffer. Odd that. Faced with the truth with regards to other energetic activities, however, I adopted a pragmatic approach and was quite happy to either accept my limitations or enjoy my successes in equal measure. The exception, for reasons which will never become clear as long as my bum hole points downwards, was cricket. As a clean-living lad, I can’t even blame it on recreational drugs; I was, and remained until I left school utterly, and - with hindsight, somewhat alarmingly - delusional about my potential as a cricket player. I was convinced that I might just be the next Ian Botham. The cold, hard evidence, however, suggested otherwise to everyone except yours truly.
As a bowler, I possessed a terrifyingly aggressive approach to each delivery. I used an enormously long run up to the crease, during which time I would cycle through a variety of emotions ranging from violent rage and murderous intent towards the batsman, all the way to panic about where I needed to put my feet before launching a blistering, unplayable delivery down the wicket at my unfortunate victim. To be fair, almost every ball I bowled did actually prove to be unplayable, although not necessarily for the right reasons. It wasn’t that my sheer pace or baffling swing was beating the outside edge of the bat – oh no: it was more a matter of the batsman not being tall or long-limbed enough to reach the ball after I had leaped into the air, tied myself in a knot and hurled the ball in their general direction. Ten feet over the batsman’s head it would go, fifteen feet to either side, and particularly worrying were the deliveries that didn’t hit the ground at all, and hurtled towards soft flesh or vulnerable, unprotected skulls for heart-stopping moments. I was bloody lethal- useless, but lethal.
With the bat, it was a different story. I was by contrast to my bowling persona, utterly harmless. This was the direct consequence of me being entirely unable to hit anything other than a ‘dolly’ ball: one that bounces in the perfect spot for the batsman (and, if you please, nice and slowly at that). There I’d stand, in shorts and wearing just one protective pad on the left leg (there weren’t enough sets of pads to go around) and absolutely nothing protecting my most sensitive areas. Instead of maintaining an inner, steely resolve in the face of such an onslaught, I tried not to shit myself at the thought of a pound of wood and leather about to be thrown at me by an enormously tall and ferocious bowler (they all looked tall and ferocious by the time they had reached the point of delivery). I was, in point of fact, far more of a danger to myself with the bat than I was to anyone else, what with my tendency to lunge and swing extravagantly (some would say wildly, but I chose to turn the other cheek towards such cruelty) at the ball, no matter where it was in relation to me. Sometimes I put so much energy into it, I swung myself off my feet. Here’s the thing: I was intent on hitting the ball as far as I could, every single time – because I just knew that despite being terrified and apparently unable to do very much very well, I could be the next biggest thing to hit the English cricket scene.
Fielding was my most successful skill set where cricket was concerned. I could run quickly, so I was good at chasing the ball as it scampered across the grass (although it usually didn’t scamper very far in the six-inch-long long grass of our playing fields). I had good reflexes, too, so that without thinking about it (which would, of course, have entirely spoiled the whole thing), I could actually catch the ball from short range. This made me ever-so-slightly useful in very limited circumstances and so quite irrationally cemented my belief in my own skills. Long range catches were unfortunately more problematic (that whole ‘thinking about it’ thing), and on one occasion I had the unenviable and memorable delight of spending at least ten minutes running around underneath a ball that must have narrowly missed dislodging the ill-fated 'Skylab' before re-entering the atmosphere at somehwere approaching the speed of light before heading back towards earth with frost on it, positioning myself perfectly beneath its final trajectory, bending my legs slightly and cupping my hands just like I’d been shown how to (by a vibrating, purple Mr. Davies), keeping my eye fixed on the ball at all times, and having the bloody thing land square on the end of my right thumb.
Three things happened all at once. First, the ball bounced off my thumb, having expended ninety nine point nine percent of its accumulated atmospheric re-entry energy in the bones of my digit and wrist, and harmlessly (I’d successfully absorbed all of the harm) onto the thick, lush grass at my feet. Secondly, my team mates groaned in unison, and at least one distant person shouted “Wanker!” in frustration. Thirdly, I dropped to the ground as a bolt of purest pain shot through my offending thumb, into my wrist and up my arm. This was accompanied by an even more excruciating jolt when I knelt directly upon the bloody, bastard, fucking ball. I hated cricket in spite of my universally unrecognized talent for it, and in that particular moment, as I cradled what was surely a career-ending injury, I decided that the sport didn’t deserve to benefit from my undoubted talents. I would spurn it just as soon as I got the chance, and teach it a bloody good lesson in the process.
If it came begging for my return in order to re-enliven its standing in the country’s psyche, I would spurn it a second time, at which point, I thought, my revenge would be complete.
In only one area of the game did I actually, genuinely do anything of any benefit (apart, that is, from unintentionally entertaining anyone who was in possession of genuine talent, and who therefore had the time to stand around and watch me make a fool of myself). I was very, very good at stopping the ball with my body. I didn’t always mean to do this – in fact if the truth be known, most of the time I was trying to do the exact opposite, but when I was out in the field, I seemed to turn into a magnet for every super-hard shot streaking towards the boundary with the flat trajectory of a Nazi eighty-eight millimetre anti-tank shell. I would have been suspicious of my comrades’ intentions, however in truth very few of us had any idea of where the ball was heading if we ever connected with it, especially if we did so with the meat of the bat. Nevertheless, I became unconsciously competent at stopping the ball with my thighs, my buttocks, my shoulders and my lower arms. My back, my chest and my shins (particularly excruciating) came in for a lot of use, too, but thankfully only once did my head bear the brunt of a successful leather-on-willow interface although it did allow me to briefly experience the interesting effects of a concussion (which included being present for, but cognitively missing an entire triple Physics lesson) for the very first time.
Twice (yes, I know that you were secretly wondering), I heroically prevented runs being scored solely through the placement of my scrotum/gonads between the evil missile and the boundary of the pitch but as you may guess, neither occasion was particularly joyful, and indeed, while a team-mate quietly retrieved the ball from next to my inert form, involved a lot of moaning, puking noises and heavy breathing, together with ever-so-gentle (and secretly enjoyed) self-massage throughout the rest of the day. Yes, I was convinced that cricket did not deserve me; I decided to avoid pursuing it any further at the age of thirteen, and thus – at least in my mind - the nation was deprived of a hundred glorious international victories…